Social satire has been made popular in the late 20th and early 21st century by such luminaries as Kurt Vonnegut, Jon Stewart, Monty Python, and The Family Guy. Each of these funny people borrow from the satire of early periods, including forebears like Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, and Oscar Wilde.
Since the beginning of literary history, there have been people satirizing politics and culture.
How Social Satire Is Different
But social satire is a different art form than other types of satire, or humor. It focuses on the ideas and mores of a particular culture. There are three generally recognized forms of social satire. I’ll summarize them briefly here.
- Juvenalian Satire - Probably the most popular form of political satire in the U.S. Named after Roman writer Juvenal in the first and second centuries, this form of satire is acerbic, using strong language, irony, and sarcasm to make fun of a particular person or idea. Humor is less of a focus than criticism, which is what makes it so popular among political polemicists. Examples of modern Juvenalian satire include Voltaire’s Candide, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and anything by H.L. Mencken.
- Horatian Satire – Named after Roman writer Horace, this brand of satire is more light hearted and is often more indirect in its criticisms. It tends to make fun of people or ideas by depicting them as foolish rather than wrong. Modern examples include the TV show The Simpsons, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and anything by Mark Twain.
- Menippean Satire – A third type of social satire is Menippean satire. Named after Greek parody writer Menippus in the third century B.C. (or the politically correct BCE), this type of satire focuses on making fun of mental attitudes of a general population. It often makes fun of cultural myths or literary genres. Latent examples include Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and my own The Saddest Tale Ever Told.
People generally read satire to be entertained or challenged in their attitudes. Good satire has the potential to both change minds and to entertain. Which type of satire do you like best?